Host/executive producer Shira Lazar discusses the innovative and informative web series What's Trending
Over the past few years, web series' have come a long way from being low-rent alternatives to TV programming to high-quality content which just happens to be distributed online. It was only a matter of time before a premium news show was developed as a web series, with the first example being What's Trending, which streams live on CBSNews.com on Tuesday mornings at 10 AM PT. The show is hosted by Shira Lazar and executive produced by Damon Berger, both of whom recently spoke with me about the future of this innovative news show, which delves into any and all newsworthy topics which have sparked much debate in social networks online. Here's what they both had to say about this show below.
Can you talk a bit about the formation of this show. Did you think there was a void in the marketplace for a show like this that you thought needed to be filled?
Shira Lazar: Yeah. So, basically how it all started was I was at CBSNews.com in 2009 as a video blogger, which was a new position for them, at the time. They gave me my own blog called On the Scene, and I was interviewing people with my Flip cam and my cell phone, covering a lot of Internet culture, digital trends, interviewing people like (Twitter founder) Biz Stone. After a few months there, they were wondering what I saw as the next step. I always wanted to create a show around the content I was video blogging about. I was always interested in what that would look like. The first outline for What's Trending was in October 2009, when the term What's Trending was just first being used. It wasn't even being used by the mainstream media yet. Damon Berger, who is my partner who is here right now also, he, at the time, was at 20th Century Fox. His background is digital studios from Stage Nine at Disney, and Revision 3, who created DigNation and are the third largest internet video network. He had a huge background in terms of producing and we came together, along with CBS, to get a sponsor to come on board. It was a year-or-so process and AT&T came on as our presenting sponsor. It was a really great fit because we actually use their technology on the show, from their tablets and phones in the show, and their message about making re-thinking possible. For us, creating the show was all about how can we re-think the news, creating a news talk format for the digital age, because we did find there was a void. We all know cable shows and daily network news shows, and there are a ton of popular web shows, but there was nothing in the middle that really resonated and became a consistent, valuable property, where you can feel like you're kept up to date and in the know. It's a place where everyone from influencers to celebrities could come and break news and share their thoughts on the news of today and of tomorrow. If Mark Zuckerberg wants to break a story, he doesn't necessarily go to one of the typical talk shows or big networks, he comes to us, because we will connect with the people online, the web community, but we also have the value of a brand like CBS that we can reach a larger audience as well.
I watched last week's show with Morgan Spurlock. It's cool to see all these celebrities who are influencing this influx of social media, but it always surprises me when I see a celebrity who doesn't really understand it, when they should. Have you ever had a guest on where you just wanted to show them the power of this new media that they didn't really know about?
Shira Lazar: Well, typically, we love having guests on that have mainstream reach, that have a digital footprint. We're lucky because it seems a lot of people these days seem to understand the power of these tools. Then we'll also have people on who will do their first tweet on the show, or getting them on because they're really funny and give a really funny perspective on the news of today. What really sets it apart is it's a show for the digital age, so people know that whether we're talking about bloggers and influencers like Chris Hardwick, to celebrities like Will i Am, what connects all of them is the passion for what the future holds with the web and digital. That's the through-line for us.
What's cool about the show too is it's not just a specialty kind of show. There are all sorts of things from politics to entertainment and anything that has that social media spin. It was fun to watch the show because it was very broad and encapsulated everything.
Shira Lazar: Yeah, we appreciate that.
Damon Berger: Yeah, that's the duty of the show. It's What's Trending, it's what people are talking about. From an editorial perspective, we want to talk about things that are influencing the offline conversations that are happening online. We can go to Google Trends and Twitter and see what they want to know more about, because they are searching for it. It's up to us to get the people who are at the core of those stories, like Jeff Jarvis, when he started the meme #F&%kYouWashington, to talk about these things. Or like AirBNB, on the heels of the announcement of that guarantee they had after the San Francisco burglary. We want the people who are at the center of these stories which do make the trends, to come on the show and talk about them. Then, of course, we bring those influencers who are tweeting about those things and talking about them through their own network, furthering the conversation and adding their opinion to it.
Can you talk about how the show is evolving? I see you all have the tablets and phones out and you're constantly checking them. Can you talk about the level of interaction that the viewers have had with you while you're doing the show?
Shira Lazar: Our whole thing is we're not just a show about social media, we're powered by it. It's funny because when people watch the show, they're like, 'Wow, this is the one show where it's OK for you to be on the phone while you're on air' (Laughs). We're the one show that allows that, and it's the nature of how we live today, so it works. Basically, we're constantly bringing tweets into the show, relevant ones. We don't bring up social updates for no reason, it has to advance the story, not just add clutter to it. During an actual story, you'll see relevant tweets that we've picked up. Some are from people who are influential, and some are from people we just found who had an interesting comment or opinion about something. We also bring in live questions for our influencer, as well as sometimes for our panelists. When we had Zachary Levi on, towards the end, we were able to ask a fan question, something that someone wanted to know who was watching live. That's where it really helps for our social media correspondent Melissa to come in, moderating the show and asking questions. She's checking the live chat and the live stream that we have, which is powered by a chat widget where people can sign in through Twitter or Facebook or GMail. She sees if there are any relevant comments in the live stream and, also, we are live tweeting throughout the whole time. We do a poll within the show, for a likes and dislikes, which is also on our Facebook page. People will also hashtag #WTLive or our Twitter handle during the show and, depending on what they say, we try to incorporate as much as possible into the show, but we don't want it to be there, just to be there. It has to add something to the conversation.
Damon Berger: I think that's the key word there, conversation. For us, it's not just about if something is an interesting comment, it's about using those comments and tweets to further the conversation on the show. It's content for us, things that drive that conversation socially.
I definitely agree with what you're saying. All those tweets that came up were all actually relevant. They weren't these silly, distracting things, it actually pulled you in and made it a more full experience.
Shira Lazar: That's awesome. Thank you. We appreciate that.
I read that The Game is coming up this week on the show. Are there any other guests that you can tease which will be coming on the show in the next few weeks?
Shira Lazar: Yeah, we have Common on as well. We're going to have Adam Carolla in September. It's an ongoing thing, and we recently added performances to this. This week we have YouTube sensation Destorm, who just broke 1 million subscribers on YouTube. We're going to have Garfunkel & Oates, this female duo coming on to perform. We really try to integrate people who are really trying to do something interesting in the online space, they will be on the show, at one point.
It's cool to see these YouTube acts in another environment.
Shira Lazar: Totally. Damon and I also produce another show called Partners Project, which is kind of like the Inside the Actors Studio for YouTube stars. We're really able to use the relationships we've built in our career to bring it to this show and give them a bigger platform to spread the word. It's interesting to see because they're not typically on shows like this, you know. They're rarely brought on, unless it's some sort of overnight viral hit, on morning shows or late night shows. We really wanted to bring attention to these artists and these personalities that are stars in their own right, on the web.
How do you see the show evolving down the road. Are there new features you're working on or segments you want to do? It seems like there is such an open door to do whatever you want.
Damon Berger: We are continually evolving the format, even if you look at the first episode until. Even within that 13-week time frame, it's been a constant evolution for us. I think the thing we're looking to do in the future are to continue to try and do more segments with more video to them, so it will get into that viral video culture a little bit more. I think the other things we're trying to do are to add performance elements to the show, where there is more music and more guests on the show.
Shira Lazar: And interactivity, pushing the boundaries of interactivity within the live show. That's really important to us. The sky's the limit, to us, to what we can do. This is the beginning of a new property which we see lasting for a long time and becoming a stable place where people can share their stories, break news, and connect with people.
These days, there isn't quite that negative connotation around the words 'web series.' It seemed like such a bottom-rung kind of a thing, but now there are so many amazing programs out there now, it's great to see more shows like this which is still high-quality on the Web.
Damon Berger: From my perspective, I think what's interesting is we've never called the show a 'web show.' Not once, internally or externally. We don't view it as such. We view this as a television show, a broadcast-quality show. We view this show as an HD television show which takes advantage of the platform that it's on. It takes advantage of the platform that it's on. We do TV, it just happens to be online.
Shira Lazar: I can't tell you how many people who watch our show, while it's available on a website, they were watching it on their television. You need to think big like that.
Finally, what would you like to say to anyone who's curious about What's Trending about why they should tune in on Tuesday morning?
Damon Berger: To me, What's Trending is the show you need to watch because you need to know what's going on at the latest cocktail party. For us, it's that new voice. With our show, we take the things and people that others follow online and we give them their voice in a new platform and surround them with actors who you go and watch on the movies and TV. We provide them a whole new platform to interact with their audiences and talk about the topics of the day. It's everything from serious stories like the London riots, to something that's more reverent and out of left field.
Shira Lazar: We say we inform, we entertain, we inspire and we bring a new take to a new space that you want to be a part of, because it will make you an awesome person if you're a part of it (Laughs). You don't trend if you don't watch this show. I'm totally joking.
Great. Thank you both so much for your time, and best of luck with the show. I actually hope to check it out live in a few weeks.
Shira Lazar: Totally. You can also tell people that, if they want to be a part of the audience, we listen. We're not one of those shows where you're like, 'God, how will I even connect with that?' If people want to be a part of the audience, and they're in the L.A. area, they can tweet us @WhatsTrending and we'll invite them to become a part of the audience.
Awesome. Thanks again.
Shira Lazar: Thank you so much. I hope to see you soon.